The New Zealand Marriage (Definition of marriage) Amendment Bill: A private comment on a public submission

On the 29th August 2012 the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill passed its first reading in the New Zealand Parliament by 80 to 40 (with one abstention).  From here the Bill went to a Select Committee for further consideration.  Public submissions closed on the 26th October.  I had been wondering if  the church would respond, and there it was, right at the 12th hour, a letter from a NZ Area Authority stating my…, sorry their…, sorry our position. 

While the church is politically neutral YouTube Preview Image   it reserves the right enter into the public domain on moral debates.  And so it should.   But this does put myself and other Mormons who have taken a similar stance in a bit of a bind.  The inevitable questions follow:  Out of loyalty to my church, am I required, as an indication of my faith, to now align myself with the views expressed in this submission? Or should exercise my right as a citizen in a democratic and pluralist nation-state to form my own opinion?  Or is there a middle way?

In any event, this submission deserves close and careful analysis – after all,  its supposed to represent the position of my faith community and me.  The submission begins:

The protection of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is a matter of the common good and serves the wellbeing of the couple, of children, of civil society and humankind. We join with others to affirm that marriage in its true definition must be protected for its own sake and for society’s good.

Clearly, at the heart of this submission is a concern for protection.   But this is where I’m a bit stumped.  I’m genuinely unsure as to what protection the maintenance of opposite sex marriage as a social practice will afford me?  Yet the use of the word ‘protection’ indicates an imminent threat,  or the presence of some form of cultural/political terror that I simply don’t feel.  I’m personally not bothered in the least by gay marriage and simply can’t see how a same gender marriage will trouble my heterosexual marriage or even our traditional nuclear family.  At the same time,  I utterly agree, that any changes (or in New Zealand’s case – any clarification) of our marriage laws needs to be done with care and thoughtfulness.  But borrowing viral memes from conservative Christian groups who have tried to create a moral panic is surely not the most helpful of strategies.   Besides I can think of a dozen issues confronting humanity and indeed New Zealand that could genuinely do with the word ‘protection’ before I’d ever give it to this one – none of which I’ve seen the church respond to  publicly. YouTube Preview Image

We also assert the existing rights of religious groups to solemnize marriage exclusively between one man and one woman according to religious tradition and individual conscience.

I absolutely agree. Religious groups should have the right to solemnize marriage in accordance with their own traditions and faith.  This right needs to be utterly and absolutely preserved in law.  Fortunately, in New Zealand’s Human Right’s law we actually have a right to ‘freedom of religion and belief’.  We have a right to hold a belief, to change that belief, to express one’s religion and belief, and even the right not to hold a belief.  Any law passed with respect to marriage needs to ensure that in the religious domain, those beliefs are preserved.  No religion ought to be coerced into accepting wholly the state’s widening parameters of legal marriage where it is not part of their belief.

As a side note, it’s a strange irony that during the polygamous era of Mormon history, the shoe was categorically on the other foot.  The church  made demands that the state widen the parameters of marriage to accommodate their innovative marital arrangements.  Imagine the state of the United States  today if the government of the day had made that concession to the LDS church.    I’m personally very pleased with monogamy and take my hat off to the US government  for not capitulating to the Mormons in this instance (creepy images of Colorado City as a social norm spring to mind).

The point is that ever since the state got involved in the marriage business there have been tensions between government and religious groups over the parameters and boundaries of marriage.  This is why it is helpful to see that the energy of any faith tradition needs to be directed at the preservation of their right to solemnize marriage according to their own dictates and conscience rather than solely contending with the state over the definition of marriage.

 The meaning and value of marriage precedes and transcends any particular society, government or religious community. It is a universal good and the foundational institution of all societies. It is bound up with the nature of the human person as male and female and with the essential task of bearing and nurturing children.

I have to take issue with this.  It’s simply untrue.  Marriage as a social arrangement does not precede society.  This is an oxymoron.

Of course marriages have taken place throughout time for a variety of  reasons, depending on the cultural context.  Rarely for love, early marriages across cultures took place largely as familial arrangements, or strategic and economic alliances. The point of course is that these were done independent of the state.  In the Anglo-Saxon tradition the church’s central role in the marriage only occurred between the Decretum Gratiani (1140) and the Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753 which then placed marriage under state control.

We also recognize the serious consequences of altering this time-honoured definition. 

New Zealand really didn’t have a clear definition of marriage –hence the reason for the bill.  The Marriage Act 1955 makes no reference to marriage as being between a man and a woman.  This bill is directed at tidying this up and allowing for: “a union of 2 people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity” over and above precedence set in court.

One of these consequences – interference with the religious freedom of those who continue to affirm the true definition of “marriage” – warrants special attention within our faith communities and throughout society as a whole.

Theoretically, there is no ‘true’ definition of marriage, at least not in the legal sense or even in the historical sense.  Every faith tradition has their own definition of marriage, and largely, each of these definitions and understandings could be protected as a fundamental right under our human rights legislation.  But there is a marked distinction between the rights of faith communities,  and society as a whole.  If we were a homogenous state with a single culture and only one set of claims on our cultural rights, we could create a fusion between state/public governance and private religion and there wouldn’t be an issue.  But the reality is that we live in a pluralistic society with competing claims on a whole raft of cultural and social rights.  The government’s job is to consider broad legal claims and balance them against their responsibility to preserve the identity and belief rights of smaller cultural and religious groups.

We believe that changing the definition of marriage would have far-reaching negative implications for the nation, both legal and social.

With all respect, if one is going to make such a forecast one needs to back this up with some specifics.   I am genuinely interested for someone to please explain to me the details and provide some sound arguments so that I can anticipate these negative implications.

Therefore, we encourage all people of goodwill to protect marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and to consider carefully the far-ranging impact for religious freedom if marriage is redefined. We especially urge those entrusted with the public good to support laws that uphold the time-honored definition of marriage.

Here is where we get to the crux of my argument.  Wouldn’t it be better if our fight as a church were for the separation of a states right to define and conduct civil marriage, from a faith community’s right to define and conduct marriage?  Why aren’t we advocating to have a two tiered public/private marriage arrangement?  On the one hand the state should have the right to define the parameters of marriage in accordance with their need to balance all competing  claims on legal rights;  and on the other hand the state would allow faith communities the right to decide how, and for whom they will solemnize in their unique marriage ceremonies.  In short, everyone would need a  license and a civil ceremony to be legally partnered, and then whoever would like to, could choose a faith tradition that they feel committed to  who would in turn willingly solemnize their marriage as a church sacrament.

If the state makes the distinction between the  public secular nature of government, and the private religious nature of religion, then why not take marriage away from government and have them conduct civil partnerships like they do in Germany.  Marriage would go back to the church and stay anchored in faith communities who would have the freedom to decide on the definition of marriage according to their own conscience – as affirmed in our human rights legislation.  Just as a faith communities hope that the state doesn’t impinge upon their religious rights, there are social groups who hope that the specialized interests of certain religious groups don’t impinge upon their claims for public rights.   And I for one think that is more than fair.

The same-sex marriage debate is complex and I’m sure that there are plenty of New Zealand Mormons out there thrilled that the church has given them an opinion.  But I’m aware that there are many other Mormons who have given this serious and thoughtful consideration over many months and even years.  In any institution’s formation of a position statement or public submission some consultation is required.  It is quite unfortunate that this particular submission, that purports to represent ‘me’, seems foremost to have consulted with the ‘Protect Marriage’ lobby.  I just think we could have sat above the mêlée with a thoughtful submission gathered from our members who I have found in large to be insightful and really worth talking to.

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  • Angela

    Gina, while our Church is politically neutral, the Church absolutely takes a stand on the position of gay marriage. Absolutely! It could not be more clear. Please take a moment to read exactly why members of the Church cannot and should not be pro-gay marriage, the Church newsroom and apostles and prophets make it very, very clear:

    • Gina Colvin

      I realise this – hence my comment that it has every right to be in the public sphere on moral debate. But the strict binary between legalising gay marriage and not legalising gay marriage will lead us nowhere. My position is a nuanced response to a complex problem that absolutely protects the rights of religious groups to perform marriage in a manner that reflects their belief systems. Did you read my entire argument or did you stop at my statement that I don’t have a problem with it?

    • Vaile Oceania

      We were about to bring the same to Gina’s attention.
      There are no nuanced personal beliefs to the followng statement issued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints whether in New Zealand or elsewhere:

      “We firmly support the divinely appointed definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman because it is the single most important institution for strengthening children, families, and society.”

      • Gina Colvin

        I am not the ‘church’ and never claimed to be.

  • Angela

    Whops, the last paragraph sums it all up in the Newsroom article:

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has chosen to become involved, along with many other churches, organizations, and individuals, in defending the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman because it is a compelling moral issue of profound importance to our religion and to the future of our society.

    The final line in the Proclamation on the Family is an admonition to the world from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve: “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.” This is the course charted by Church leaders, and it is the only course of safety for the Church and for the nation.

  • Angi

    So in every country where a decision is to be made, the LDS people are to decide for those who are not of our faith that, like it or not, if we have anything to say about it, we need to decide that everyone else will be following our rules? Isn’t that akin to the plan God didn’t care for much in the Preexistence–the one that would have assured that everybody would return come what may–??? I believe if we want to be treating others as we would be treated we could start here and start with this. Whether we like this or not, we do not get to say what non-members, or even inactive members do. We don’t even make great decisions of our own….but I digress. So why do we not stick to living our own beliefs? Actually, as an American, I have heard once before of the plan put forth of having civil ceremonies as a base legal ceremony with any religious ceremony to follow being a personal choice. In California a couple gets their paperwork, and decides where they want to marry. It can be at the Courthouse, or a friend can pay a fee and perform the ceremony legally for the big day. Or if you choose, you can have your ceremony, as many religious folk do, at Church–or, for LDS who are Temple-worthy, be sealed. If no one were worried about the genders of the happy couple, it would be all good, I imagine. I’m still waiting for someone to stand up and go to court in a place where same gender marriages are legal and complain that Tom and Ed next door broke their happy heterosexual marriage up. Now, I hope I haven’t offended anyone, but I seriously wonder why we’re so fixated on this kind of thing to the exclusion of “whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, thy brethren, ye do also unto me”. If anyone can tell me what is so much more interesting about this subject than doing all one can for the benefit of someone in need, please let all of us know.

    • Gina Colvin

      Well said Angi!

  • Sarah

    I agree with a lot of what your saying Gina. Just what are these far reaching negative implications for our nation? Examples/details please. For me this is a rights based issue and I strongly believe that my fellow gay and lesbian children of God should have the same rights that I enjoy…I do not understand how this in any way could undermine society, or threaten the institution of marriage. Some even argue that it will weaken the family unit…please – amongst the lesbian/gay parents I know the opportunity to solidify their relationship with a marriage will only strengthen their family and in time strengthen more families in our nation.

    Its not the first time our LDS leadership have issued a moral statement that I completely disagree with, I tend to think that as long as our leadership is dominated by ageing white men I may from time to time continue to disagree with such statements. I cant imagine how I would have in anyway agreed with the Church’s outspoken opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the US back in the late 70′s/early 80′s. The church’s statements at the time remind me lot of those being issued today about gay marriage. A lot of broad statements about weakening the family etc…. One thing I did find interesting was the following in an old 1980 Ensign:

    “Question: Is favoring the ERA grounds for excommunication? (ie…. is dissagreeing with this statement on a moral/political issue going to be a problem for my membership in this church)

    Answer: No. Contrary to news reports, Church membership has neither been threatened nor denied because of agreement with the proposed amendment. However, there is a fundamental difference between speaking in favor of the ERA on the basis of its merits on the one hand, and, on the other, ridiculing the Church and its leaders and trying to harm the institution and frustrate its work.”

    I hope this stands today with todays issue, I wholeheartedly support the New Zealand Marriage Amendment Bill, and sincerely hope it gets through and passed into legislation, I’ll be as vocal as I need to be in my opinion and belief without ridiculing the Church’s stance on it, in return I hope my fellow LDS members here in NZ bear in mind my agency to have my own opinion and view on this moral/political issue and not pass judgement and ridicule on me.

    • Gina Colvin

      Sarah, thanks for you comment. I think the worse thing that could happen to us in New Zealand is that we end up like America, and draw hard religious/political boundaries, create exclusions, build up tensions over the legitimacy of a literal orthodox belief v a more nuanced belief, and splinter. I get a sense that the ‘brethren’ are working slowly but progressively at building a faith community that feels kinder, more tolerant, thoughtful, inclusive, and less heavy with dogmas. I don’t think an institution can generate compassion among its people without first demonstrating compassion.

  • JohnH

    “stating my…, sorry their…, sorry our position. ”
    The Church’s position and presumably the Lord’s position, “my” and “our” sort of depends on whether one is in agreement with the Church and the doctrine.

    “With all respect, if one is going to make such a forecast one needs to back this up with some specifics. I am genuinely interested for someone to please explain to me the details and provide some sound arguments so that I can anticipate these negative implications.”

    The Family: A Proclamation to the World was a document given by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve acting in their official capacity and contains such warnings backed up by the specifics of revelation from God and the authority of the offices held by those that gave it. If one is able to affirmatively say that they believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is what it claims to be and that we do in fact have Prophets and Seers then I am not sure how one can doubt such claims, especially given the continued and repeated focus in General Conference over the years given to this Proclamation (one of only a handful, the first of which we have a revelation in the D&C commanding its promulgation).

    “US government for not capitulating to the Mormons in this instance”

    I have to wonder how familiar you are with D&C 132 and Official Declaration 1.

    “It’s simply untrue.”
    Take your pick of Genesis, Abraham, Moses, Nephi (and the temple); All speak of Adam and Eve as being our first parents and of them being married in the garden of Eden before the Fall by God.

    “Theoretically, there is no ‘true’ definition of marriage”
    Neither is the Man without the Women nor the Women without the Man? Therefore shall a Man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife? D&C 132?

    Have you ever considered the Community of Christ? If so, why are you LDS rather then CoC, if not why not? What exactly do you see as being the difference between the two? I am not asking to suggest you leave the LDS church, I am actually curious because based on this and your previous posts it appears you have problems with precisely those things that the LDS hold which the CoC does not and that you wish that the LDS did precisely those things that are different from the CoC.

    Also, I realize that you are asking the Church to provide you with non-faith centric backing for forecasts, definitions, and history. However, you are, like me, LDS so I am extraordinarily interested in how you view your position in face of scripture, continuing revelation, priesthood keys, and the temple,

    • Gina Colvin

      You need to bare in mind that this submission was to a parliamentary select committee. Excuse the insistence on something more robust but in a forum like that, if you want to be taken seriously you actually have to front up with a sensible argument – yes with context, and evidence.

      I’m not asking the the church to provide me with anything. I’m commenting on a public submission to a public democratic institution. As a this was written on behalf of New Zealand members the onus is on the church to represent that position well and thoughtfully. If it isn’t well constructed, as a member of the public then I have a right to critique.

      With respect to your suggestion that I go to the CoC as a more fitting place for me, I wonder why you think that the CoC would be here in New Zealand? Upon what basis would it have been established here?

      Why don’t you become a Catholic? It will offer you the comfort of religious authoritarianism. The pope is inerrant, there are few opportunities to change or influence doctrine, and its pretty top down. I’m curious to know why you think Mormonism is a fit for you when I see it as expansive, thoughtful, inclusive, and is more responsive to, and welcoming of scholarly critique than it has ever been.

      Finally, I’m not sure that you have actually engaged with my central argument which I would really rather discuss.

      • JohnH

        “I wonder why you think that the CoC would be here in New Zealand?”

        Because according to the Community of Christ website it is in New Zealand. Further, why should it matter whether or not it is organized formally in New Zealand or anywhere else? Should the first LDS converts in whatever country not have joined the church just because the church wasn’t organized in that country?

        “The pope is inerrant, there are few opportunities to change or influence doctrine, and its pretty top down.”

        I don’t think you are very familiar with current Catholicism, or how doctrine is changed in Catholicism.

        “Mormonism is a fit for you”

        It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not it is a fit for me, how inclusive, responsive, or welcoming of critique; if it is true then it is true and everything else is irrelevant. Either it contains the priesthood of God and is led by prophets of God and contains the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the only way to receive eternal life and exaltation or it is a meaningless social organization designed to make people feel better about themselves and is lying about its true nature making it one of the most evil organizations on the planet regardless of whatever else it does, claiming to have prophets and authority to speak and act in Gods name leaves no middle ground at all. If it has Prophets and Apostles as it claims then they have the ability to speak for God and so when they speak on something repeatedly and consistently as they have in the case of defense of marriage, proclaiming to the world in their official capacities that the disintegration of marriage and family will bring foretold calamities then I think the options become limited to either accepting that they really are prophets and we should listen to them or to reject them as prophets and go our own way allowing intense cultural and political views lead us away from the oracles of God.

        • Gina Colvin

          It does indeed appear to be here in New Zealand – but operates out of Honolulu??

          The Catholics having been debating the the doctrine of “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” for years now so the idea that the only path to salvation is through the church still has some currency. There doesn’t seem have been a rescinding of the the doctrine of papal infallibility – or did I miss something?

          On the other hand our church leaders upon have never, ever claimed infallibility either in the person, or in the doctrines of the church. You might recall that Brigham Young proclaimed that a child of a mixed union would be killed on the spot, or that polygamy was a doctrine of salvation – all emphatically proclaimed by a succession of prophets and apostles and all emphatically rescinded. Holland even going so far as to suggest a certain former doctrine to be ‘folklore’. Clearly I’m much more generous than you and don’t hold them to unreachable standards of doctrinal infallibility. Doctrines – largely reflect the particularities of their host culture, that’s why we can’t consider them categorically definitive. As cultures move and change so do doctrines – yes, even ours!

          So we clearly have reached in impasse. You proclaim your Mormon identity because you have an absolute and literal belief in the exoteric features of our faith tradition, I proclaim a Mormon identity, in spite of the fact that I think our faith raises more questions than it answers, I think Christ and God are also present in this tradition – which for me is my religious home.

          • JohnH

            I do not hold prophets to the level of infallibility, I hold the revelations of God as found in scripture to be infallible and not dependent on culture (though the understanding of them certainly can be). Such revelations contain things such as the “only true and living church” and “through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel”.

            “There doesn’t seem have been a rescinding of the the doctrine of papal infallibility – or did I miss something?”
            Infallibility is a relatively recent development and since it happened Popes have tried to give infallible statements that are not now held as infallible; it is sort of like Ecumenical, a council can try to be ecumenical but if it is not accepted by the Catholic church in general and doesn’t result in a schism or everyone agreeing then it is likely not to be deemed ecumenical and a new council held. Doctrines in the Catholic church are created primarily through the use of philosophy called theology, therefore if one becomes a doctor of theology one is able to easily create new doctrines that many Catholics will take up and eventually (but probably not in ones lifetime) have those doctrine be deemed infallible and part of what every Catholic is supposed to subscribe to. Then there is the huge problem that extremely few Catholics actually follow the doctrines that they supposedly believe.

            “faith tradition”
            So you like the culture but don’t actually believe in what is claimed?

      • Vaile Oceania

        Clearly Gina, you are not a practising Mormon otherwise, you would know and support the relationship the LDS Church has with the Catholic Church — and all other Christian organisation.
        It seems that you are not at all well-researched for one indivicual making submission to parliamentary committee.

        • Gina Colvin

          I didn’t make a submission.

  • Kiwi57


    Apart from your apparent ringing endorsement of the Edmunds-Tucker Act as a brave defensive gesture of non-capitulation, I have no quarrel with your post. There have always been Mormons with varying opinions on many subjects, and thankfully, there always will be.

    However, I don’t think there’s really very much room for debate among believing Latter-day Saints about what marriage is and means. A moment’s reflection upon the phrase “holy matrimony” really ought to settle any questions about that.

  • http://n/a R M B BATTEN

    I support this objection to the bill.

  • Vaile Oceania

    Gina, we wanted to let you know there is official postition on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint.
    New Zealand Mormons do not liv e in isolation of the position:
    “We firmly support the divinely appointed definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman because it is the single most important institution for strengthening children, families, and society.

    • Gina Colvin

      Clearly you haven’t read my post.

  • Dot

    Sorry you have to deal with this variety of people on your site. Keep at it, it’s appreciated.

  • Dot dot

    Sorry you have to deal with this variety of people on your site. Keep at it, it’s appreciated.